Keep Your Eye on the Balto

Originally published in 

Coffee shop and bakery owner Greg Martin kept baker’s hours to whip this chimerical Minneapolis building into a modern confection.

Project 
Balto Building
Architect 

A mustard-yellow brick building in Minneapolis’ Whittier neighborhood once housed an insurance company called the Minnesota Commercial Men’s Association. Years later, it sheltered battered women. After that, it was home to an elderly artist who rented out a few apartments haphazardly carved out of each floor. Then, finally, Greg Martin, a coffeehouse owner and part-time rehabber, came along and reincarnated the building yet again—not that anyone standing on the street could really tell.


“It looked almost abandoned,” Martin says, appreciatively. And with its crumbling front walk and chipped façade, it still sort of does. But after two years of radical renovation—filling and emptying 40 giant dumpsters of construction debris, taking countless early-morning trips to The Home Depot, and experiencing episodes of sheer panic—the interior tells a different story. Or, for Martin, who did much of the work himself, it tells many.

The Balto building, as it’s known, has been a curiosity to Minneapolitans for years. Built in the early 1900s, just down the road from turn-of-the-last-century mansions, it’s a warehouselike commercial building, incongruously plopped down in the middle of a predominately residential neighborhood. “This is definitely one of those buildings,” Martin says. “People always wonder what goes on in here.”


Developers were curious, too. But the previous owner, a septuagenarian artist named Melisande Charles, steered them away. “She wanted someone who loved the building,” Martin remembers. “And we were the only people who walked in here and said, ‘We want to do this.’ Everyone else just saw dollar signs. ‘You have good juju’—is what she said.”

The good juju went a long way. Martin bought the building for $575,000—less than the listing price—and began gutting and renovating the basement and first floor, creating two residential units and one commercial unit to rent out for extra income. After that, he took on the giant task of gutting the second floor, which had been chopped into a warren of scattered rooms. “It was just a bunch of cats, random fabric everywhere, crazy lights,” Martin remembers.

Martin, a Minnesota native, had renovated several properties in the city over the previous ten years, usually renting out an apartment or two, then living in the building himself and selling the place after a couple of years. But at the Balto building, he wanted a modern, minimal renovation and a home where he could settle with his nine-year-old daughter, Eve, who had been carted around from property to property. “She’s had to put up with a lot,” Martin admits. 


The budget was limited, so Martin did as much of the work as he could. The floor, for one, was covered in asbestos tile, and estimates to remove it and finish the concrete underneath ranged from $20,000 to $30,000, so he finally decided to rent equipment and tackle the job himself. “I spent a full-on weekend doing the floors, wearing goggles and a respirator,” he says. 

Martin came to appreciate his amateur effort. He couldn’t get the paint and glue spots off the concrete, so the floor remains splotched with orange and black. “At night, when the lights are on, it just glows. It’s amazing,” he says. “There are these little hieroglyphs everywhere.”


When the job of clearing the 2,600-square-foot space was done and the floors and ceiling tiles were all carted away, Martin was confronted with the overwhelming task of designing the space and realized he needed professional help. “I own a coffeehouse. I’m an amateur renovator,” he says. “I love design, but when it came down to it, I didn’t know what to do. I freaked out.”

Martin admired the work of local design collective redlurered, and enlisted their help. When designer Scott Muellner came over and saw the soaring rectangular space, he instantly envisioned a plan. A week later, the redlurered team delivered a model.

The idea was to maintain the openness and height of the space, maximizing the wall of windows to the south, while also creating private spaces and second-story lofts that would accommodate Martin’s six-foot-five-inch frame. The shared area now includes an open kitchen and dining space with three separate seating areas, two of which are tucked away from the larger space. Two staircases lead into the unit from the ground level, while another leads to one loft space, consisting of two more rooms attached by a bridge. The master bedroom, like the common areas, has 14-foot ceilings—“Maybe it’s because I’m tall, but I like a lot of space,” Martin says—while Eve’s bedroom is two levels, with a desk area below, and a ladder leading to a bedroom and play area above. Another area, on the first level, includes adjacent lounging and computer nooks.

Martin served as general contractor for the entire project, in addition to managing the coffeehouse and a baking business he launched the same week he bought the building. In the morning, he’d deliver muffins, éclairs, and scones, check in at the coffeehouse, and then go to the building to work. A couple of times during the yearlong process, he would leave town in the middle of the night to make the six-and-a-half-hour trip to IKEA in Chicago, then turn around and come home with kitchen cabinets, lighting, or pillows. “It was definitely ruining my life,” he says. “The relationship I was in at the time? Done.”

Martha McQuade, a designer with redlurered, says it’s unusual for a client to be as hands-on as Martin was. “We have people who pitch in and do a little painting,” McQuade explains. “But Greg is unique. He was fun to work with. He’s a cowboy.”

And it wasn’t all bad for Martin’s social life. Every afternoon at 4:30—for a full year—Martin invited anyone interested to come over for beers to check out the progress. “There were some days I wanted it to start at noon,” Martin laughs.

The hard work also changed his relationship with the space, and with the building, for the better. “This place was just nothing,” Martin remembers, “but every day I woke up and worked really hard and made it happen. I love being here. It’s really rewarding.”

Not that he’s a misanthrope, but Martin says he’s happy to enjoy the space with Eve for a while without contractors or curious onlookers around. “I like that it looks abandoned,” he says, only half joking. “And that the doorbell doesn’t work.”

To see more images of the project, please visit the slideshow.

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